The Algorithm: A Driver for Climate Change Polarization

BY SOPHIA HIDALGO



In this digital age, social media is the driving force in the way individuals perceive the outside world. It’s a bottomless source of information and ideas that allow facts and opinions to be voiced. While this freedom is a luxury, its effect on climate change has intensified a growing division of extreme beliefs. Especially in the United States, where six in ten Americans use social media to receive their news, polarization between climate change advocates and climate change deniers has become more apparent.


From a general standpoint, social media is both expressive and consumptive. It is expressive by allowing people to speak up and consumptive by providing material for users to engage with. However, social media goes deeper with its power to hook the user. One’s online history and interactions are analyzed to promote engagement and usage. While this benefits social media companies, user analysis ensures that individuals are updated with accounts and information that keep them coming back for more.


So how is user analysis linked with climate change? The answer lies within the algorithm. One’s online history, followers, and following significantly impact how a person perceives issues that are presented to them. People are immersed in what they want to see rather than what they need to see. The ability to choose what we engage with leads the algorithm to personalize our content and sort people into like-minded categories. In large, for problems such as climate change, this selective viewing is detrimental to progress and combating dismissive behavior fueled by denial.


According to the Climate Institute, social media has turned into “echo chambers” instead of facilitating a safe space for constructive debate. They are created by peoples’ decisions to follow certain accounts and the algorithm’s boost in content it thinks they would agree with. In some cases, these echo chambers are so isolating that they shelter individuals from alternative viewpoints and promote extreme views. Whether they are for or against climate change, only a minority of users interact with others who hold diverse standpoints. This generates a false reality in which everyone shares a similar perspective.


Popular to both climate change activists and deniers, elite media, which are mainstream outlets like CNN and FOX, remain as key influences to both sides of this social polarization. Their role in consumption continues to grow as they reach out. However, unlike these credited sources of elite media, the accessibility of social media has led to the rise of opinion leaders who are “users that disseminate information supporting their points of view to followers.” Despite being uncredited, they express their beliefs and rely on their followers to consume their media out of trust. Their influence is so expansive that 35% of the 100 most retweeted posts following the release of the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report were from opinion leaders who were not part of any scientific, media, or non-profit organization.


Regardless of what is being spread by opinion leaders on both sides, climate change advocacy can continue to be boosted. With efforts from both climate change advocates and climate change deniers, the situation at hand can be seen as serious to all. We can shift perspectives into an understanding beyond the content the algorithm provides us. People can come to know the realities of what is happening to the world. It’s only after we take steps forward to acknowledge opposing viewpoints that the gap caused by polarization in climate change beliefs can be bridged.


Because of its easy accessibility, social media has the power to be the mediator. We can work against polarization by reframing the public’s opinion on climate change to fit the core values that are being individually prioritized. In doing this, we can appeal to people by creating relatable reasoning and increasing communication between diverging groups. Such an effort may convince skeptics into not being as doubtful or dismissive when acknowledging the science behind it.


Now more than ever, we are at the height of content and media coverage for climate change. Within September of 2019 alone, there have been 132 million engagements to articles that were focused on the topic. With that number continuing to rise, all types of interactions throughout the world are shaping people’s beliefs. Whether it be based on fact or opinion, the algorithm continues to boost content in the user’s favor. With no regard to what is right or wrong, the algorithm leaves this manner to the consumers. As a product of our actions, social media is only what we make of it.


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